Hoping for more in sustainable energy goals

May 23, 2017
By Donna Schaper  
National Catholic Reporter

Pragmatists set small goals and achieve them. Utopians set large goals and often fail. People of faith often help the pragmatists to shake hands with the utopians, while living by hope, realistically.

How big should our goals for addressing climate change be, given what we know about how much serious trouble faces the planet? How big can they be, given what we know about human nature?

Back in 2015, Stanford University engineering professor Mark Jacobson and other researchers calculated how each U.S. state could meet its power needs entirely on the backs of clean renewable energy — specifically, solar, wind, water and geothermal.

Jacobson and others involved in the Solutions Project, as it is known, believe that all 50 states can generate 80 percent of needed energy from renewable sources by 2030 and achieve a 100-percent transition to clean energy by 2050. Backing up those beliefs are state-by-state breakdowns of a new energy mix for each, along with the health and economic benefits projected to accompany such a full shift from fossil fuels.

Others are equally optimistic.

At the beginning of 2016, the Sierra Club launched its "Ready for 100" campaign aimed at convincing mayors across the country to commit their cities to their own 100-percent renewable goals. As of May, seven cities in the campaign, including Burlington, Vermont, are powered entirely by renewable energy, 20 cities have established timelines to do so, and efforts by environmental advocates in another 40 towns hope to add their communities in this utopian and hopeful pipeline.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of my home state of New York, has mandated that we in the Empire State achieve 50 percent of our electricity from renewables by 2030, arguing that this is a pragmatically optimistic goal. But perhaps New York is being way too realistic, when so much hope is available elsewhere.

People of faith are often accused of having too much hope. We wonder if hoping for too much denies our other more interesting theologies about sin's originality or human fallibility.

I hear St. Paul in both ears: in one, "All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and in the other, "For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want" (Romans 7:19). Pragmatists at least have reasonable understandings of the human ability to reach our best goals or best selves.

Then I hear St. Paul argue for salvation as though it were a possibility — we are to "imitate" God (Ephesians 5:1). With this faith, I side with Stanford and the Sierra Club against New York in the fight about achievable goals. Why not hope against hope for perfection? New York is a great state; it can do better.

Even the White House is in a fight about article 4.11 of the Paris Agreement, the piece of the international climate accord that states a nation can adjust its climate goals "with a view to enhancing its level of ambition." Can the target for our commitment to the global deal only go up, or can it also go down? Can we renegotiate the climate pact without withdrawing from it? Can we be realists without withdrawing from our faith?

Because of these more theological concerns about possible justice and eschatological justice, pragmatic justice to the Earth and beautiful justice for the Earth, I have come to really like my state electric bill.

My Central Hudson Gas & Electric bill is broken down into a delivery cost listed at the top and a supply cost just below it. Both list a total cost independent of one another, then are added together to present your "TOTAL ELECTRIC CHARGES" bolded at the end of the numeric tally. It is a privilege to pay for energy, even if the price can be confusing, if not too high. What some think as high, people of faith might think of as low. It is a privilege to have energy and to pay for it.

St. Paul might understand my dilemma. Why would I want a bargain at the cost of the planet? I wonder if we can get him on the phone from Rome or Ephesus.

Even more, I wonder if more theologizing would help governors and activists and solar engineers. When will we be able to declare victory? Do we need to put a tax on each gallon of gasoline in order to add more carrots to the renewables transition effort, or are there other ways that we can gracefully punish ourselves?

Are we happy if we make progress even if it is not enough progress? Doesn't it matter that human beings are doing the best they can?

But what if our best is not good enough?

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]